Tips for Surviving the Holidays on a Gluten-Free Diet

It’s hard to believe that the holidays are upon us with Thanksgiving only a day away and Christmas/Hanukkah just around the corner! Although the holidays are supposed to be a time of love and joy, I think we can all agree that they can also be a bit overwhelming and stressful at times. Adding to this stress, celiacs have another thing to worry about—what we are going to eat at holiday celebrations.

As a self-proclaimed foodie, food used to be one of the things that I looked forward to the most during holiday gatherings. Unfortunately, now it is one of the things that I have to worry about during these gatherings. It’s not always easy, but it is manageable! Although it may require some time and planning, it is definitely possible to attend holiday functions while maintaining a strict gluten-free diet. Here are some tips to get you through any celebration during the holiday season: 

Thanksgiving/Friendsgiving/Christmas/Hanukkah/Holiday Dinner:

The vibe and atmosphere of holiday dinners will likely vary depending on the size of the social gathering. It is usually easier to navigate the gluten-free food situation at small, intimate gatherings versus larger get-togethers that may include people that you’ve never even met before—like the boyfriend of your first cousin once removed.

Holiday Dinner for a Small Group: 

  • If your holiday gathering consists of just a few close friends or only your immediate family members, it is likely that everyone will be more cautious and more willing to accommodate your GF diet. They may just need to be reminded of your dietary needs!
  • If you are the designated host of the year, this is actually a good thing because you likely already have GF staple ingredients/spices and separate cookware in your home. If your guests want to contribute to the meal, they can help by purchasing some of the main ingredients and/or helping prepare the GF food in your kitchen.
  • If you are not the one hosting the holiday dinner this year, offer to help the host/hostess prepare the meal, discuss how to prepare safe GF dishes, and lend your personal pots/pans and other cookware to prepare the food so that the food items are truly GF.
  • Keep in mind that many times your family and friends won’t be able to even taste the difference between something that is GF and something that is not. For example, they probably won’t notice if you use GF bread to make the stuffing, so it may not be necessary to have both a regular stuffing and a separate GF stuffing. Just make one GF stuffing that everyone can enjoy—this will also help to prevent any accidental cross-contamination that may occur if you have two stuffing dishes that look alike.
  • If you have family traditions and recipes that are not GF (like your mom’s infamous homemade pumpkin pie), help your family to modify their recipes so that you can partake in the same deliciousness that the rest of your family is enjoying. Family favorite recipes can often be replicated and modified by simply swapping out the gluten-containing ingredients for GF ones. Just be sure to try out the recipes ahead of time, so you know if the modified recipe will be a success.

Holiday Dinner for a Large Group: 

  • A potluck dinner is pretty much a given for a larger group of family or friends. This can present a bit of a challenge since there are so many hands in the pot (literally). Planning ahead is key. Check with the host/hostess to see what’s on the menu and what everyone is bringing. Hopefully the host has created a means of communication for all of the guests, especially if you don’t know everyone attending. It may be helpful to communicate through a Facebook event, Evite, email thread, or basically anything besides a group text that blows your phone up every 10 seconds!
  • Although a potluck may seem intimidating on a GF diet, it can actually be a good thing—you don’t even need an excuse to bring something because everyone else is too! Bring at least one filling gluten-free dish that is safe for you to eat and can be shared with others. Consider also bringing a dessert so that you will have something to eat for each course of the meal.
  • Usually there will be a variety of alcohol provided at any holiday gathering. But if you have a family of craft beer lovers, you may want to bring a six-pack of hard cider or a bottle of wine to get you through the evening, just in case.
  • Always keep GF foods together and away from the gluten-containing foods. It’s also a good idea to clearly label each dish and dessert, so that the guests know what everything is and so that you know what is GF and what is not. This is especially helpful if your meal is served buffet-style. This should seem pretty obvious, but make sure that each dish has its own serving utensil. Since you can never be too careful, you may want to encourage guests to get a separate plate for the GF items, in case the serving utensil accidentally touches non-GF items on someone else’s plate as they mindlessly pile on the food. If this is not possible because there are barely enough plates to go around, you may want to actually put the GF items at the start of the buffet line because that way if anyone else wants them, they will be served onto a clean plate and not a plate full of gluten.
  • Try to serve yourself first, in case anyone accidentally cross-contaminates the GF food. Fill your plate with enough food so that you don’t need to go back for second helpings, since the food may have unintentionally been contaminated with gluten while everyone else was filling up their plates. As mentioned before, each dish should have its own serving spoon/utensil and guests should use separate plates for GF items; however, it is possible that the designated serving utensils will somehow get mixed up. This can easily happen if Uncle Harold is “hangry” and impatiently grabs the serving spoon from the non-GF stuffing to scoop his mashed potatoes because Aunt Betty was taking too long scooping her own helping. So yeah, try to be the first in line for dinner.
  • Be prepared if the conversation takes a turn to “why aren’t you eating the dinner roll and breaded casserole?” You can make it a teachable moment and briefly explain celiac disease and your need for a gluten-free diet, but don’t let it create a negative atmosphere or be the focus of your entire dinner conversation. Keep it short and sweet. If your dining companions still want to discuss it, simply tell them it’s not really “dinner talk” but that the conversation can be continued later once everyone has finished their meals.
  • Despite all of these suggestions, you may even want to eat a light meal at home before arriving at the gathering. I know this might sound crazy considering many people hardly eat anything all day in anticipation of the big meal they’ve been saving room for (not a good idea btw). But these are also the same people that don’t have to worry about what they stuff their faces with all evening. If you anticipate a long night and aren’t completely confident that the limited GF options will be enough to fill you up, consider eating something beforehand.

Work/Office Holiday Parties:

There are many types of holiday parties that can occur at the office or workplace. It’s important to be prepared for every scenario, so that even if your job is stressful, one thing you won’t have to stress out about is the annual holiday party that your coworkers look forward to every year.

  • If your company decides to have a potluck breakfast or lunch at work, see the above tips.
  • If your company chooses to have a catered lunch for its employees, check to see if the catering company can provide any GF options. Make sure to instruct the caterers to label the GF items and keep them separate from the other foods. If they don’t offer any GF items or if the only GF menu item that they can provide is a fresh fruit tray, consider also bringing a light lunch to the party, so that you’ll be sure to have something to eat while everyone chows down.
  • If your company decides to have the annual holiday party at a restaurant, suggest a couple of nice restaurants that you know can provide you with a safe GF meal. If you’re the low (wo)man on the totem pole and corporate is the one calling the shots on the location, find out what restaurant they chose. Then call ahead and ask to speak to a manager/chef to see if they can accommodate your GF needs. If they can’t provide you with a GF meal, you may want to just eat your own meal before going and hope that you’re allowed to consume alcohol during the party. If it’s frowned upon to get tipsy at the holiday work party, you can just sip on some sparkling water while socializing with your coworkers. Treat yourself to that drink when you get home though because you definitely deserve it.
  • Hopefully your employer doesn’t decide to forego the annual holiday party for a cookie swap. Unfortunately, you’ll most likely have to sit this one out. But, you could suggest a non-food related exchange like a White Elephant/Yankee Swap gift exchange instead.

Hopefully, you’ll find these tips helpful as we enter the holiday season! Now you can spend more time enjoying the holidays with your loved ones and less time worrying about food!



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